Benjamin Shaw

Benjamin Shaw is a history and English major at the University of Maryland. Growing up just outside DC, in Prince George’s County, he was the kid who gave tours of the Smithsonian museums to visiting relatives, and trained to dress up as a docent at the site of the Battle of Bladensburg. He has discovered a passion for research through a variety of recent avenues: first as part of Glen Echo Park’s oral history program, then in a stint at the National Archives sorting oversized materials (Archives II has everything from 70-year-old barley samples to portraits of Hitler from New Jersey), and now at WETA. Ben enjoys hiking, Ursula K. LeGuin, and the DC music scene, and is continually astonished by how little newspaper editorials have changed in the past 200 years.

Posts by Benjamin Shaw

Fat man cartoon from The Washington Times, February 4, 1914

Fat Men's Clubs of D.C.

In the 19th century, being overweight was still a sign of wealth and prestige. So, it's probably not surprising that fat men’s clubs started popping up across America. There were Fat Men’s Clubs from New York to California; they eventually reached “every state in the Union” as well as the nation's capital.

The D.C. fat men’s club scene was wildly popular and members would intentionally pack on the pounds at the time of membership renewal in order to remain eligible. They were proud of their weights, even boasting about how much they had gained each week. And, sometimes, it was serious business, like 1894 when a brawl broke out between two of D.C.'s biggest clubs.

Andrew Jackson

The Election of 1828: It's Always Been Ugly

As the presidential election of 1828 approached, the nation’s emotions were running high. Andrew Jackson, the former Governor of Tennessee, was to challenge incumbent president John Quincy Adams. This was a partial rematch of the controversial four-way contest of 1824. Jackson won the most popular and electoral votes, but because no candidate won a majority, the election went to the House of Representatives, who chose second-place finisher John Quincy Adams. Jackson and his supporters were furious. Calling it the “Corrupt Bargain,” Jackson’s supporters accused fourth-place candidate Henry Clay of selling his supporters to Adams for the job of Secretary of State. This set the stage for the most vicious campaign ever seen at that point in American history.

Filene Center in 1980. (Source: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Wolf Trap Captures the Hearts of the DMV

Today, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is a mainstay of Washington, D.C.’s cultural life. The park’s large outdoor auditorium and beautiful green space play host to a variety of performers. However, 50 years ago, some politicians questioned whether it was a wise decision for the government to accept the land gift from Catherine Filene Shouse and build the performing arts center.

1884: The Year of Two Nationals

1888 Washington Nationals Baseball Club (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the years, Washington, D.C. has been home to numerous professional baseball teams, very few of them with winning records. But, 1884 might take the cake for weirdness. That year, the nation's capital boasted two separate teams called the Washington Nationals. They finished a combined 59-116.

No "Monopoly" on Monopoly

Elizabeth Magie comparing a copy of “Monopoly” to “The Landlord’s Game.” (Image source: “Designed to Teach,” Evening Star, January 28, 1936.)

The official history of Monopoly states that the game was invented in 1935 by Charles Darrow, a man down on his luck during the Great Depression, who was catapulted to fame and fortune through his invention of a simple board game. The game was hugely popular, selling two million copies in its first two years in print. However, the game would have already seemed very familiar to intellectuals, leftists, and Quakers across the Northeast. And for good reason: the Monopoly we know today is a near-carbon copy of an earlier game, The Landlord’s Game, designed by a Maryland stenographer named Elizabeth Magie - except that while Monopoly’s goal is to bankrupt your opponents, The Landlord’s Game was intended to show players the evils of monopolies.

D.C.'s Half-Accidental National Mardi Gras

Crowds pack the top floor of the Treasury Building as the Carnival is in full swing on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

The modern-day DC Caribbean Carnival is a small affair, at least compared to the world-famous parades in carnival cities. There are plenty of revelers - and people celebrating Caribbean culture - but the capital certainly doesn’t come to a halt the way cities like New Orleans do on Mardi Gras. This hasn’t always been the case, however. For one year, in 1871, Washington, D.C. stumbled into hosting a Carnival parade that rivaled those in New Orleans itself. The National Fete, as it also became known, was an extremely patriotic version of the Carnival festivities, with national flags, “Yankee Doodle,” and rockets’ red glare mingling with the Lord of Misrule and the masquerade.

Ice Carnival at the Tidal Basin

People ice skating and walking on the Tidal Basin, year unknown. [Estimated to be between 1900 and 1930] (Image source: D.C. Public Library, Special Collections.)

We’ve written earlier about how the Tidal Basin was the site of a popular public beach in the 1920s. In the decade before, however, it hosted another source of popular entertainment: ice skating. In 1912, it was the site of an elaborate “ice carnival,” with thousands of Washingtonians showing up to skate, sled, and have an evening of wintry fun.

In the 1900s, the Tidal Basin freezing was a rare treat. Unlike the Potomac River, when the enormous basin froze completely, it had a smooth surface, turning it into a gigantic potential ice rink. The absolutely frigid temperatures of the winter of 1912 gave D.C. residents ample chance to take advantage of this. For several weeks in January and February 1912, D.C. was subjected to “the coldest temperatures of the 20th century.” It was a cold spell to put the polar vortex to shame. On January 14, 1912, the low was -13 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature which has never again been reached in the District, and which is rivaled only by one freezing day in 1899. Pipes burst, gas meters iced over, and milk bottles froze, with “the cream [swelling] out into a solid cylinder two inches above the mouths of the bottles.”

Obviously, people were pretty miserable. But the upside of this was that for several weeks, the Tidal Basin was completely frozen, creating perfect skating conditions. Many people had already ventured out onto the ice on their own, but some District officials had bigger plans.

Julius Hobson's Unlikely Relationship with the F.B.I.

Julius Hobson was as active an activist as you could imagine, but he also collaborated with law enforcement for several years. (Image source: DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division, Collection 1, Julius Hobson Papers.)

We’ve written before on this blog about the exploits of Julius Hobson. A D.C. civil rights activist in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, his campaigns against segregation and injustice were based on equal parts audacity and bluff, ranging from staging a “lie-in” at a D.C. hospital, to encouraging people to paste pro-integration stickers over the punchcards on their power bills,  to threatening massive protests and boycotts that had no chance of materializing. He combated police brutality by following policemen around with a long-range microphone, and, most famously, promised to release cages full of rats on Georgetown if the city didn’t deal with the rat problem elsewhere. His antics effected genuine social change, in large part because everyone was too nervous to call him on his bluffs, for fear that he might be able to back them up. His acts were already so outlandish, anything seemed plausible, except for one rumor that seemed to be too uncharacteristic to be true. Yet, it was the truth: for years, Julius Hobson passed information to the FBI.

Cover of December 8, 1957 Sunday Star magazine, which featured Sam and Friends.

The Muppets Take Maryland

Jim Henson’s shows and characters are renowned throughout the world. Creator of The Muppet Show, Labyrinth, and, of course, the beloved Sesame Street, Henson gained fame through his innovative puppetry, his unique characters, and his ability to tackle serious and educational subjects while still retaining the humor and sense of fun that characterized all of his work. By the late ‘60s, all of America was familiar with Henson and his creations. But the people of the D.C. area were the first to see his Muppets in action, and it was in D.C. that he got his first big break.

The Wright Brothers Prove Their Worth in Arlington and College Park

Wright Military Flyer flying at Ft Myer in 1909. Photo courtesy of the College Park Aviation Museum.

Ohio and North Carolina often get into a dispute about who can “claim” the Wright Brothers. The former was where the two lived and conducted most of their research, but the latter was where they actually took to the air for the first time. The debate rages on, with shots fired in forms from commemorative coins to license plates. But the place where the Wright Brothers really fathered the American aviation age was right here in the DC area, where they taught the first military pilots to fly, proved to the American public that their machine was real, and took to the air at what is now the oldest airport in the world.

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